Album Review: Kathleen Edwards – Total Freedom

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There’s a line on Kathleen Edwards‘ excellent new album where she sings “I got birds on the feeder. I got dogs and they’re sleeping. I got total freedom.” Edwards explains the song, saying “I realized the relief of not being responsible for anyone except the dogs and feeding the birds and the joy of the simplicity of their company.” That seems a long way from how Kathleen felt back in early 2014 when, after four albums she announced that she was quitting music due to depression, relationship struggles and feeling in a rut. “Music is life,” she wrote on Twitter. “But I’m stalled as fuck.”

Prior to that moment, Edwards’ career had been progressing nicely, with five Juno Award nominations (each of her previous albums were nominated for ‘Album of the Year’ and she received three ‘Songwriter of the Year’ nominations) and tours with Willy Nelson and Bon Iver amongst others. She also picked up the SOCAN Songwriting Prize for her track, A Soft Place to Land. To many, her decision to leave the music business was sudden and surprising.

Kathleen Edwards in Ottawa – 2019

Famously, she chose to open her aptly named coffee shop, Quitters, near her home town of Ontario and fans were left wondering if that was the last they’d hear from her.

Then, after three years of working 12-hour days at Quitters, there was an out-of-the-blue offer to fly to Nashville to write with country star Maren Morris. “I thought, ‘I had my head in the sand for so many years, I’d love to try that,’” she told Rolling Stone. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

The result was the song Good Woman, a re-working of a track Edwards had begun writing about a failing relationship. Morris flipped the song into a love song and Kathleen felt her creative itch returning once more.

One of the first songs written afterwards was album opener, Glenfern, about her former guitarist and ex-husband Colin Cripps. “I just had this wave of nostalgia for the funny things you navigate as a couple and how life is always reminding you of memories you hold close in your heart,” Edwards says of the song. It’s one of the best songs she’s ever recorded. Full of positivity and nostalgia, it’s the perfect beginning to an album that signifies her returning to music with a renewed optimism.

Hard On Everyone follows with an expansive sound that calls to mind the cinematic songs of The War On Drugs. Written on the floor of her empty house after leaving a bad situation, the song demonstrates Edwards’ sublime and intimate songwriting. Although born from a toxic relationship, there’s again a sense of hope to the lyrics as she sings about, as she describes it, “waking the fuck up. And exiting.”  

The aforementioned Birds On The Feeder takes things down several notches, with a gently plucked acoustic guitar and Edwards’ crystal-clear vocal. You can almost hear the birds twittering as she sings about the “total freedom” that also lead to the album’s title. It’s unlike anything she’s written previously and is the album’s most blissful three minutes.

Simple Math is one of the songs closest in style to Kathleen’s early material. “Love is simple math,” she decides as she again looks back with a sense of nostalgia on childhood friendships. The line, “everything and nothing changes” could have been an alternate album title.

Throughout the album the production and musicianship are flawless. Co-produced by Edwards, longtime collaborator and guitarist Jim Bryson and Grammy Award-winning producer and musician Ian Fitchuk, the result is a rich, warm-sounding record that allows space for the vocals and lyrical content that helped gain her such a loyal fanbase.

The album’s first single, Options Open is next. An almost perfectly formed pop-rock song that has understandably received plenty of radio airplay already, with Edwards singing about the moment in a relationship where you’re ready to fully commit before realising your partner isn’t quite the man you thought he was. “Nothing like writing your own outcome long before you realize that’s what you’re doing,” she says of the track.

Options Open leads neatly into Feelings Fade, a song that builds from a melancholic ballad to a soaring crescendo as if the singer has a moment of realisation that things need to change. “A nice parting middle finger of sorts” is how she describes it.

In the past, Kathleen Edwards has written many songs from the point of view of another person, but the songs here all feel incredibly personal and are all the better as a result. They feel true and cathartic and will surely reassure her fanbase that she’s lost none of her ear for melody or her clever way with language.

“Love is blind. Whoever bought that line must be a real sucker,” is the astute opening lyric to Fools Ride, a song she calls her “armour song.” It’s a mid-paced self-explanatory tale of dishonesty and disappointment and feels like a segue into the final third of the album.

Ashes To Ashes is her tribute to a friend she met through working at her coffee shop that passed away suddenly. A beautiful ballad that speaks of the unfairness of the event and a song that she says reminded her “I don’t want anyone to mention God when I die.”

Edwards confronts death in a more positive way on Who Rescued Who, a song reminiscent of 2012’s single Sidecar, and written about her beloved golden retriever, Redd. Guitarist Bryson told her she would have to make it through the chorus without crying if they were going to make it a usable track. “It took a while, but we got there,” she says.

Album closer, Take It With You When You Go, feels like closing the door on a chapter in her life. It’s Edwards admitting that painful experiences are inevitable but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. They also make for great songs. It seems fitting to sign off with that sentiment, especially with this album representing a brand new chapter in Kathleen’s life and career. “It also had a closing drum part that felt like the door shut,” she says. “Just the right end to an album.”

Kathleen Edwards’ brand of Americana mixed with that classic rock influence has become far more popular during her extended coffee break, with several new artists citing her as an influence. After all this time, she may have just created her finest record yet. The only question remaining now is whether or not she needs to change the name of her coffee shop.

• Total Freedom is released by Dualtone on 14 August

Review & live photo – Steve Gerrard

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